Empty Chairs at Empty Tables

I’ll always remember the first panic attack that I experienced in reaction to my child’s mental health issues.  Don’t get me wrong, I had already had many sleepless nights and terrifying, tear-filled moments. But never an actual panic attack. It was the first night of Rosh Hashana. Our teenaged daughter had been recently hospitalized for severe depression and suicidal ideation. We had prepared for the holiday as best we could, trying to preserve some level of normalcy for our other children. As we got ready to go to the table to make kiddush that night, I looked at my daughter’s empty place at the table. And suddenly I couldn’t breathe.

I tried to subtly make my way into the kitchen as everyone else gathered around the table, so my other kids wouldn’t see my breakdown. I put myself in a corner of the kitchen and sank to the floor, trying to catch my breath. My husband came into the room and held me as I quietly sobbed. We sat together until I managed to gain my composure and return to the table, the lack of my daughter’s presence haunting me throughout the meal. 

Hospitalized Children During The Holidays

Parenting children with mental health issues brings many challenges. I could write a whole lot of different pieces focusing on any one of them, but here is a seemingly small aspect that many people might not consider while caught up in the whirlwind of cooking and shopping and preparing which the holiday season brings: When kids are in a hospital, it can’t help but affect the family experience during the holidays. And when it’s a mental health facility… It’s likely that people aren’t even aware. Nobody is baking us cakes, arranging for meals to be brought over, or sending holiday packages from the organizations that provide such things for families with sick kids. 

We go through the motions of holiday preparations and sit at our Yom Tov table with a lump in our throats and an ache in our hearts. If we can drag ourselves to shul, we come late and leave early to avoid any social interaction, keeping our eyes in our siddur. Our pain is hidden and lonely. Not out of shame or fear. Simply out of a desire for privacy, and a resignation to the fact that most people simply aren’t equipped to understand what we are going through.

After over five years of watching our oldest daughter battle severe mental health issues, there are very few holidays at this point that don’t evoke some sort of trauma. The High Holidays continue to carry the association of this first panic attack, not to mention the stress of our existential crises that have emerged over the years in response to seeing our child in pain.

Gone are the warm fuzzies and cinnamon-spiced memories evoked by the coming of the new year. No longer do we feel moved to repentance or spiritually energized by the singing of the congregation or the blowing of the shofar. Instead, we look at the empty seat in shul (when we can even push ourselves to join the services) where our daughter should be sitting and wonder why our child could possibly deserve to suffer and what prayer we could possibly utter to help save her.

Trying To Make Sense of It

Chanukah carries the memories of my first painstaking realization that my child was really sick. When we attended a Chanukah party on the ward and sat in a room surrounded by other families in the same position, I looked around and was hit with the startling realization that we had become part of a club that we had never asked to join. When my younger kids were given gift bags and goodies in the lobby by the groups who come to hospitals to visit sick kids, it was an unexpected reality check. When our family gathers to light the menorah, there is one less menorah on the table.  When we sit amongst the flickering candles and I play maoz tzur on the piano while the family sings… The missing voice is all I hear. What was once the most joyous part of our family holiday experience is now a painful one. Yet, we go through the motions, trying to rekindle that joy.

Purim is when we made goody bags at another daughter’s bat mitzvah, to be distributed in the adolescent psychiatric ward where our daughter was a resident, rather than the usual pediatric wards that are the standard recipients of such treats. After all, who acknowledges that there are regular kids like yours and mine in a psych ward?

Sukkot is when our daughter needed emergency treatment one year because she was experiencing psychosis in the middle of our family outings. Pesach is when it all began. The depression got so bad that she couldn’t leave her bed to join us and thus we started the neverending journey of psychiatrist visits and medication adjustments. 

Shabbat comes every week, and we have been forced to alter the way we celebrate it. It became exhausting to sit at the table week after week, looking at that empty chair, and singing songs that used to represent the feeling of family togetherness and now only amplified our emptiness. We switched up the tunes, shortened the repetitions, changed our Shabbat morning routine, even changed our menu. We needed to make it a new experience rather than continue to mourn what was lacking in the old one. Yet, every single week without fail, the changes we have made also serve to remind us of what we’ve lost.

A Second Empty Chair

As we stand on the precipice of yet another high holiday season, I was moved to write this piece. Our oldest daughter is thankfully doing well but continues to work hard to win her battle. She will be spending her holidays in the residential treatment program that she currently attends…halfway around the world, in a different country. One empty chair. And now, this week, our second daughter has been hospitalized. Not for the first time. She will spend the holidays in the same institution that her sister did, when I had that first panic attack, years ago. Two empty chairs. We will dip the apple in the honey and eat the sweet challah and hope that the year ahead will bring about the change that we have been waiting for. That our table will once again be surrounded by a healthy family.

We are just a regular family. Our kids grew up in a healthy, supportive environment surrounded by love and opportunity. They are bright, talented, and beautiful. They didn’t experience severe trauma or extreme circumstances that caused their illnesses. They simply got stuck with some bad genes that we didn’t even know to suspect were there. So we sit at our table and look at the empty chairs. And then we look at the other chairs filled by our younger children, so young and full of innocence… And we wonder what the future holds in store for them.   

Keep Us In Mind

When you’re caught up in the pre-holiday frenzy of shopping and cooking and preparation… when crisp apples and fall weather and pumpkin spice fill your senses… look around and think about the empty chairs at the holiday tables of the people around you. Families who cannot celebrate together due to illness or loss or even just distance. We can be grateful for all that we have and, at the same time, long for those empty chairs to be filled once more.

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2 Comments on “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables

  1. I was very moved reading your article. Thank you for sharing your family’s experience and perspective. I am praying for your daughters and all of our children who need prayers… may Hashem grant us all a truly sweet new year!

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